Bigfork runners show promise at Libby Invitational

by MACKENZIE REISS
Bigfork Eagle | September 2, 2020 2:10 AM

The Bigfork cross country team showed up hungry for competition at last weekend’s Libby Invitational.

“As a team, our kids ran really well,” said Assistant coach Holly Wielkoszewski. “We had a couple of significant personal records” — including a near 2-minute personal record by junior athlete Colton Wroble. Many of the athletes put in extra work over the summer, which Wielkoszewski said paid off in Libby. The runners were especially motivated, having missed out of their track season, which was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we have had a really good turnout this year. I think the loss of the track season this spring has inspired the runners to make this season count and not take any of the races for granted,” she said. “Every race could potentially be the last race of the season.”

Five Bigfork runners faced off against the field of competitors last Saturday with top finishers being senior Grace Stewart, who came in first for Bigfork and eighth overall with a time of 22:51 for the three-mile course. Stewart had a close race against Columbia Falls’ Alyssa Blankenship who bested the Valkyrie runner by just four seconds.

“She had a great run battling with a Columbia falls runner and we even had the Columbia falls coach come by after the race to compliment her on her tenacity and performance in the race,” Wielkoszewski siad. “In the end the Columbia falls runner did beat her to the finish line, but it was a great race for Grace and we know she has a strong senior season ahead.”

Finishing strong for Bigfork on the boys’ side was junior Elliot Sanford, who came in 11th out fo 38 runners with a time of 19:14, along with freshman Colton Ballard who finished 14th in 19:29. Wielkoszewski said Sanford came close to nabbing a personal best in Libby, which is quite a feat for the first race of the season and noted that she was also excited to see where the season would take Ballard, who's coming off a strong middle school racing record.

While the team is grateful to be running at all, the fall season has not progressed without change. The Montana High School Association released guidelines for all of the fall sports in light of the coronavirus pandemic with the aim of reducing potential exposures of COVID-19 among student athletes. Meets and the races themselves look different this year — the meets are smaller and races are divided up so that heats of no more than 28 runners take off at a time. For Bigfork, the restrictions also mean exploring new territories and swapping some meets out for others. Case in point in the Kalispell Invitational, a meet they’d normally make an appearance at, but this year the event is limited to A and AA schools, so Bigfork will be heading elsewhere to compete, Wielkoszewski said. Change is also afoot for this weekend’s race in Cut Bank, which has relocated from the Cut Bank Golf and Country Club to Sunset RV Park, where athletes can easily spread out. And the competitive field will be limited too — the middle school runners will run a course at home, instead of traveling with the high school athletes to Cut Bank.

The racers who do make the trip will face a challenging course peppered with steep hills that Cut Bank head coach Brian Suttle described as “a true cross country course, but not a course for PRs” according to Wielkoszewski.

Despite all of these alterations to the traditional cross country season, Wielkoszewski said the spirit of the sport is alive and well. In Libby, she was happy to observe the same camaraderie amongst the athletes that she’s seen in years past. The physical space may have increased between the runners gathered at the finish line, but the sense of community was still there.

“Runners of all levels are cheered on by all the athletes there,” she said, of Libby. “That spirit of the sport hadn’t changed.”